“Overwhelmed with the abundance of options . . . and it’s a great feeling.”

With more than 11,000 graduates, Simon Youth Academies are home to more than 11,000 inspiring stories of hope and determination.  One of these success stories came to light late in 2013 when SYF received a note from a young man who was to graduate from Simon Youth Academy at Opry Mills in Nashville, TN.  The entire SYF team was touched by this student’s sincerity and how earnestly he accepted our support. 

When the SYF team attended Opry Mills’ mid-year graduation ceremony in December, 2013, we had an opportunity to meet this young man and to learn more about his journey. He was selected by his teachers to speak at graduation, and just as his note had done weeks earlier, his speech struck a chord with the entire audience.

His message is one that you simply need to hear in his own words.

Please meet Brandon Pressley . . .


A Striking Success

Contributed by Debby Weber, General Manager, Roosevelt Field®

As my daughters were growing up in our multicultural community, I thought it important to immerse myself in the facets of education where I could make a difference.  In serving in the PTA at town and county levels, as a school board trustee and as an education lobbyist, I saw many children who could not, due to social or economic circumstances, depend upon family and traditional education communities to ensure their successful preparation for life.

I did everything I could to highlight the needs of these students, but alternatives to traditional education were just not available. It was heartbreaking.

At some point during my middle years with Simon, I started to track SYF with increasing interest.  I always donated. I followed the wishing well collections.  And I started to think about what we in the field could do to raise big money.

In 2007 I was asked to come up with a new SYF event for the Northeast Portfolio, so I met with a community partner and brainstormed.  We wanted an event where hundreds of people could participate and where all of the malls in a region could work toward a fund raising goal – an event that didn’t depend on weather, that didn’t take all day, where guests could physically participate – or not, and where people would have fun while they networked.  And we wanted to create an event formula that could be adopted by other regions and repeated, over and over, for years to come.

Bowling for Education was born. The first event was held by the Northeast Region on December 3, 2007, in celebration of the 10th anniversary of SYF.  280 people attended. 80 sponsors participated. And we raised $75,000. The numbers have grown each year, and in April of 2013, the event was attended by 450 guests, secured more than 180 sponsoring companies and raised $284,000! Over the years we have shared our event “formula” with other regions across the company, which now refine the event for their own markets and contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to SYF.

It is incredibly satisfying to work for a company that has a significant, positive impact on the lives of thousands of children who might not make it on their own. How thrilling it is to know that we can help make that difference.

About the Author:
Debby Weber joined the Simon Malls® team in 1998.  She currently serves as General Manager at Roosevelt Field® in New York.  Debby is a strong advocate for SYF, and in honor of her outstanding support of SYF, she was designated as a Founders Award Winner in 2013.


Two teams. One mission.

Contributed by Kevin Cutrer, Office Administrator, Copley Place

I’m a proud member of the Copley Place mall team in Boston, MA, and I am also part of the Simon Youth Foundation team.  Incredibly, the two roles never compete.  They complement each other, and I feel a great deal of pride in knowing that our two organizations have partnered to make such a positive impact on the lives of thousands of at-risk students. 

This week, the SYF team visited the New England region, and as part of that visit, I had the opportunity to hear the story of Brandon Pressley – a student at Simon Youth Academy at Opry Mills in Nashville, TN. Like many of the students SYF serves, Brandon overcame immense challenges in his life to finally earn his high school diploma, making him the first in his family to do so.  He doesn’t live anywhere close to Boston or my hometown, but Brandon’s story hit close to home for me.

I grew up in a small town in Louisiana. Like Brandon, many Louisiana students have to make tough choices, including the choice of whether to put food on the table or attend classes. I was lucky. My family owns and operates a small business that has thrived for more than fifty years. Business was not always good, but thankfully, I was never faced with the same tough choices that students like Brandon face every day.

When I look back on my high school years, I can’t think of any time when I seriously doubted that I would graduate. Yes, I worked hard, and I had to earn every single “A” on my report card—no one ever gave me anything. But there was never any thought that I might lack the time and resources to complete my studies. I know this is certainly not the case for a number of my friends, many of whom dropped out of high school, and I know I could have been one of them. As hard as my parents worked to keep their business running—and my father often had to take on second and third jobs—businesses fail, despite sound practices and prudent planning.  We were fortunate.  Many are not.    

If you are like me, you take your high school diploma for granted. If you are like me, when you were younger, you were blessed with the good fortune of never having to put any other consideration ahead of your education.  But fortune does not smile kindly on everyone. It touches each of us differently, and this is why the work of SYF is so important.  When good fortune seems to shun certain students in favor of others, SYF steps in and creates opportunities. 

To-date, SYF and Simon Malls working together have helped more than 11,000 young people overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and graduate from high school.  Brandon’s story touched me, yet I know his story is just one among 11,000. That number gives me a lot of hope, even in the face of some disheartening dropout statistics. Brandon’s story and 10,999 others are proof that we can reverse the dropout trend, one student at a time.

About the Author:
Kevin Cutrer earned his B.A. in English at Southeastern Louisiana University in 2004. Since then, he has lived in the northeastern United States and the northeast of Brazil. In Brazil, he taught English as a second language and helped manage a language school for working class students. Currently, he is the office administrator of the management office at Copley Place, a Simon property. Cutrer's poetry has appeared in a wide range of journals and magazines internationally, including The Hudson Review, The Cimarron Review, and The Dark Horse. He lives with his wife in Hyde Park, the southernmost neighborhood in Boston.

Workplace Approach Enhances Learning Environment

Contributed by Lisa Morris, Director, Simon Youth Clark Pleasant Academy

Academic focus and life skills development have always gone hand-in-hand at Simon Youth Clark Pleasant Academy. As part of our ongoing effort to better prepare students for self-directed college learning environments and ultimately for the workplace, we are phasing in a “workplace approach,” beginning this semester and continuing into next year. 

As a former director of college admissions, school counselor, and now Academy administrator, I’ve been talking to students for years about time management, work ethic, self-monitoring, responsibility and productivity. These skills are so important to our students’ success that my colleagues and I have decided to stop talking about them, and instead, create an academic environment that encourages students to start living these traits on a daily basis. 

Students now have a job description that outlines their responsibilities and expectations.  They are expected to be on time and have consistent attendance, as they would in a workplace.  Their academic progress equates to work productivity levels and is tracked daily, so they always know where they stand relative to their target graduation date. Students who are not meeting attendance and productivity expectations may be placed on an improvement plan, as they would be in the workplace.

We’ve made some adjustments to our workday schedules too.  Students arrive at the Academy for their three-hour “shifts” and now have a built-in 15-minute break, similar to a real-world work environment. Students are expected to limit their personal phone calls, texts, videos, and electronic games to break time. Appropriate language and behavior is stressed, reflective of what would be expected in the workplace. And in the future, we’ll be phasing in a time clock, periodic performance reviews, and opportunities to be “promoted” to team leader positions.

Many of these standards and expectations have been in place for years, but the workplace approach involves and empowers students in a new way. By combining academic coursework with real-world life skills development, we are finding that students are beginning to see relevance in every aspect of the school day – from working on math and English classes to coming to school on time. 

Since we began implementing the workplace approach, my students have had a running joke: “Where’s my paycheck?” I laugh and tell them, “It’s called a diploma.”  I know their “paycheck” lies ahead of them in the form of open doors and opportunities.  It’s so exciting to watch these students who were once at-risk of dropping out create full, successful lives for themselves.


AmeriPark Holiday Valet Program Raises More Than $47,000 for At-Risk Youth

Shoppers at Simon malls across the country who chose to valet park their vehicles this past holiday season helped put the charitable efforts of AmeriPark, a full-service parking company, in overdrive. 

For the fourth consecutive year, AmeriPark teamed with mall owner Simon Property Group and mall retailers to promote the service and send a healthy portion of the proceeds to Simon Youth Foundation (SYF), an Indianapolis-based national nonprofit dedicated to helping at-risk students graduate from high school.  AmeriPark boosted participation in the program by offering its customers coupons for complimentary valet parking on a subsequent mall visit and complimentary meal offerings from mall retailers.

“The entire AmeriPark team has embraced this program as an annual tradition that really benefits everyone from mall shoppers to students,” said Chip Patterson, AmeriPark CEO. “Our customers receive promotional perks, and we get to help create opportunities for kids who need to know that someone cares about them.”

“For the fourth year in a row, this innovative program has raised funds that will help hundreds of students, and we are truly grateful to AmeriPark for their support of our mission,” said Simon Youth Foundation President and CEO Michael Durnil. “Through collaboration with strong community partners like Chip Patterson and his team at AmeriPark we can help kids who are at-risk of dropping out become kids who are at-promise for bright futures.”


Witnessing the Evolution of Orange

Contributed by Brandi Young, Simon Youth Foundation Vice President, Advancement

This week has been filled with preparation for some key SYF events.  Within the span of only two days, we will have welcomed three new members to the Simon Youth Foundation Board of Directors, and we will kick off a six-week tour of Simon Annual Meetings.  The latter will take us coast-to-coast to share our mission with a very important group of stakeholders – Simon Employees.

In the bustle of preparing reports, travel itineraries and presentations, I could not help but pause for a moment when asked to speak about SYF’s history from my vantage point.  April, 2014 will mark my 15th anniversary with Simon; just one year off from the 15th anniversary of SYF. 

I began my career in a Simon Mall, and I remember the day our mall teams were directed to focus philanthropic efforts toward SYF – at that time, a new nonprofit. We knew the Foundation had the makings of something special, but few of us fully understand the potential impact of the organization in its early days.  

I know I didn’t understand its full potential until my mall opened a Simon Youth Academy, but it was incredible to see the entire character of the mall transform as we added an academy to its “retail mix.” We were so proud to host the school district and students who were filled with hope and ready to create a change in their lives.

Mall teams across the country were experiencing something similar, either through Simon Youth Academies or later through Simon Youth Scholarships, and what began as a directive grew to be something very different and very special. It didn’t take long for Simon employees to truly embrace SYF.  Today, this important group of stakeholders not only knows SYF, but they advocate for us and for the thousands of students we serve. 

Simon employees understand the impact of the Foundation, and they want to be a part of our story as it is being written.  They inspire me with their creativity and their drive to initiate new opportunities for at-risk youth.

I have watched SYF grow, win national awards and make an impact in every Simon community.  With our Simon employees as partners, we have now graduated more than 11,000 students and awarded more than $11 million in scholarships, all while maintaining a 90% graduation rate across all Simon Youth Academies.  I’m fortunate to sit in an amazing seat – one that has allowed me to see the full transformation of SYF from fledgling organization to national leader in non-traditional education.  And in the words of one of our recent Academy graduates, “we’re not stopping here.”

About the Author: Brandi Young is the SYF Vice President, Advancement serving as chief liaison to the Foundation’s corporate donors, including Simon Property Group, and facilitating a wide-range of nationwide fundraising events each year. A native of the Hoosier state, Brandi joined SYF in 2004. Her professional experience includes retail marketing and management with Simon Malls throughout the U.S. Midwest. Brandi holds a bachelor’s degree in sports marketing from Indiana University-Bloomington.


Simon Youth Foundation makes the cut as one of 64 nonprofits competing in Brackets For Good 2014

Playoff season is around the corner for college basketball teams and nonprofits too!
While our network of Simon Youth Academies and supporters spans from New York to L.A., Simon Youth Foundation is headquartered in Indianapolis, and we can’t help but get swept away by our home state’s love of basketball. 

Every March in Indy, Brackets For Good hosts single-elimination, competitive fundraising tournaments for nonprofit organizations to participate in at no cost.  Those who advance all the way to final round have a chance to win $10,000. 

This year, Simon Youth Foundation is making our first appearance in the tournament, and we’re looking to our strong base of supporters to help us advance through the rounds.  We need you to be our sixth man!

Tip-off doesn’t happen until 8 p.m. on February 28th, but there’s plenty of pre-game activity before then. Help us raise awareness for our important mission and get warmed up for the first round by:
·         Following Brackets For Good Twitter
·         Liking Brackets For Good Facebook
·         Follow #BFG14 conversation on Twitter
·         Follow #BFG14 conversation on Facebook


SYF on the Road: Seeing Orange in SoCal

In Westminster, CA at the heart of Orange County, the color orange is everywhere.  But at Simon Youth Academy at Westminster Mall, the Power of Orange is an unmistakable force in the classroom. 

Our academies span from coast to coast, and each one has a character as distinct as the city it calls home. In Westminster, that character is defined in large part by the artistic talents of students. From studio art to crafts for local charitable causes, teachers at Westminster have artfully incorporated their students’ interests into the academic setting in a way that enhances education. 

Student artwork lines the walls in a conventional display of incredible talent.  But art lives in an unexpected way too: nearly every student knits. Capitalizing on this passion for creating fashion, students have begun knitting colorful caps for cancer patients at a local hospital as an academy-wide service project.

Teachers and students alike at Westminster maintain a keen focus on academic achievement, but they share an understanding that that art can play an important role in education. Reading, writing, and solving mathematical equations can work in tandem with drawing, painting and playing a musical instrument as keys to unlocking opportunity.

About the Author

Eric Chamberlain is the SYF Major Gifts Officer, supporting the Foundation’s efforts in developing and executing external individual and corporate gifts. Hailing from Pennsylvania, Eric joined SYF in 2012. He has worked in the nonprofit sector with two membership associations and public broadcasting. Eric holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Lycoming College. Reach Eric at or 317-263-7716.


Heartfelt Thank You to an Anonymous Donor

At Northshore Mall in Peabody, MA, a quiet gentleman has visited Guest Services time and again to make generous contributions to Simon Youth Foundation.  Over time, his dollars turned into hundreds of dollars, and eventually the anonymous donor surpassed the $1,200 mark.  Attentive Simon employees took note, and although the humble patron wishes to remain anonymous, a student at Simon Youth Peabody Learning Academy at Northshore Mall couldn’t pass up an opportunity to compose this note of thanks:

Dear Sir,

I just wanted to say thank you for your contributions to our school.  My name is Nichole and I am soon to be a proud graduate of the Peabody Learning Academy. I know that you have probably heard hundreds of graduates praise their alma maters, but my accolades for my school are sincere.  Six years ago, I started having medical problems and was diagnosed with a genetic disease.  Attending school on a regular basis became a challenge, and the norm for me was missing on average 80 days of a school year.  I found it hard missing school, even with tutors coming to my house; I was always trying to catch up.  I want you to know that I loved school, loved learning and was a good student.  My junior year was the worst, and I just gave up.  I felt alone, defeated and felt that everyone was giving up on me.  I resolved that I would probably never be able to graduate with my class, and I gave up on my dreams for my future. The Peabody High School has hundreds of students; I was just a number and a kid with poor attendance.  Then Mr. Bedard at the Peabody Learning Academy found me.  I remember the day that my mom and dad took me to PLA for an interview; my parents could not believe that I was being given such a great opportunity.  Mr. Bedard told my parents that he was here to help me, and if I did the work, and followed the rules that I may be able to graduate with my class.  Mr. Bedard explained that he would give me the tools, and the rest was going to be up to me.  Mr. Bedard said that he believed in me and told my parents that he would take care of me.  Having a man as well respected as him believing in me changed everything.  With the help from the two teachers, Mr. Tanglis and Mrs. Murray, and of course Mr. Bedard I am proud to say I am an A student. I have not missed a single day of school, and I will be graduating in May 2014 with my class.  I am even more proud to say that my future has been resurrected and most of all I believe in myself.  I’m in the process of filling out applications for college and I hope to go to medical school; I want to work with children like myself. I want to encourage them to dream and to reach for their goals.  Most of all I want children to know they aren’t alone.  Someday I hope to support the Peabody Learning Academy just like you did.  This school really does change lives. 


Nichole Kernweis


SYF on the Road: At-Promise Students in Nashville, Tennessee

With 25 Simon Youth Academies in 13 states, Team SYF is known to hit the road occasionally.  A recent visit to Simon Youth Academy at Opry Mills in Nashville, TN, reinforced how closely our academies tie current academic pursuits to future opportunities in the workforce, college and beyond.  In addition to the familiar sight of students hard at work in Math and English classes, part of the academy was buzzing with a different kind of activity . . . a FAFSA help station. 

Current students and recent academy graduates were diligently plugging away at the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  Some paperwork is just that: paperwork.  But for all of the nerve-wracking tediousness that comes with this particular piece of paperwork, it’s an important step toward something big: college.  And these students certainly were not grumbling about the task at hand.  They were engaged and enthusiastic. 

SYF often describes our typical academy student as “at-risk” of dropping out of high school.  It’s a common term that carries a well-understood meaning.  But perhaps a more accurate description of our typical academy student is “at-promise.” In the not-too-distant past, each of the Opry Mills students was dangerously close to becoming a dropout statistic, yet on FAFSA day, that past seemed forgotten.  They have become, or are on the way to becoming, high school graduates with the promise of bright futures ahead.